A soldier and a tree surgeon have admitted the unlawful killing of a Co Armagh man who survived in a vegetative coma for two years before dying in a nursing home on June 12, 2012.
Royal Irish Regiment soldier 23-year-old Michael Wilson, from Marlacoo Road, Tandragee, and 24-year-old, Gareth McKinney, originally from Charles Park, Portadown, had been accused of the murder of 32-year-old Lee Smyth.
Wilson also pleaded guilty to robbing the unfortunate Mr Lee of a cigarette tin after he was left unconscious in a pool of blood, almost unrecognisable, following a brutal attack on June 6, 2012.
On Wednesday following an adjournment as the Armagh Crown Court trial was about to enter its second day, defence lawyer Paul Ramsey QC, for McKinney, asked for his client to be re-arraigned. Mr Arthur Harvey QC said he would have a similar application on behalf of Wilson.
As the murder charge was put to them again, both men continued to deny the murder, but in turn pleaded “Guilty” to the manslaughter of Mr Lee who had suffered a catastrophic brain injury, from which he never recovered.
Prosecution QC Terence Mooney told trial judge Mr Justice Weir and the jury of six women and six men, that he had considered the pleas to the less charge, following an earlier indiction, and in view of the evidence he was prepared to accept them in the interests of justice.
On Tuesday he had told the court that the attack was a result of the all too distressingly familiar story of young men emboldened by drink, who met and for whatever reason, then engaged in gratuitous violence. Mr Mooney claimed that both McKinney and Wilson, free from all constraint, had engaged in a totally unwarranted attack on a defenceless Mr Smyth.
The court heard that Mr Smyth was found in the early hours in the Folly area of the cathedral city by a woman out walking her dog. Although he survived in a coma for just over two years, his family made the agonising decision, based on medical advice, as he continued to deteriorate, to withhold further treatment.
Mr Mooney had also claimed that Mr Smyth had been treated “like a trampoline”, with his attackers using their “shod feet” to jump on him as he lay prone, motionless and defenceless on the ground. He also alleged a former girlfriend of McKinney would contradict his assertion that he was not involved in the attack, or Wilson’s claim, that while present, he played no role.
However, in her evidence Ms Lindsay Bell revealed that it had been Mr Smyth who “went for” Wilson, throwing the first punch as “they squared up to each other”. Although McKinney joined in the fight after she had asked him to intervene and stop it, she added that Mr Smyth was punched and only kicked “on his body”.
Ms Bell, who began her evidence in tears, shaking almost uncontrollably, said that when all three men were fighting, McKinney and Wilson “got the better of the bald man” who wasn’t responding as much when he was fighting with Wilson alone.
Wilson, she said, didn’t seem to know what was going on, “with the adrenalin”, and that “it ended up being just more than a fight”, and that Wilson had kicked him “on his body”, and that McKinney was also involved, although he did not use his feet, and that the fight: “just stopped”.
Later Ms Bell also agreed with Mr Harvey that even after Mr Lee’s unfortunate death, Wilson “still did not appreciated it was connected with what happened on that path on that day”.
The court also heard that in the hours beforehand Mr Smyth, had been involved in two other disputes. On one occasions police found him brandishing a stick as he confronted a youth. He was advised to drop the stick and to go home, and appeared to do so.
The jury also learned he had been in a temper when he had gone out looking for those who had thrown solar lights from his girlfriend’s garden, at the house. When he could not find them, he returned to the house and attempted to arm himself with a machette and then a kitchen knife, but was prevented by his girlfiriend.
She later agreed with Mr Harvey she did so because she feared he might use them on someone and she wanted to minimise the potential damage he could have caused if armed.
Both Wilson and McKinney will be sentenced next month, and while McKinney was released on continuing bail, Mr Justice Weir said it in no way could be taken as indication that he would not inevitably face a custodial sentence.